The RACER Mailbag, April 13

The RACER Mailbag, April 13

Insights & Analysis

The RACER Mailbag, April 13


Q: As I write this there is still discussion about finding 33 starters for this year’s 500. Marshall, I’m a traditionalist like so many others but is it really so important that we have 33 starters if it means we have uncompetitive cars just to make a number? I refer to NASCAR’s years of having to provide 43 starters, some of which were known to be start-and-parkers. I’m all for tradition, but knowing some cars may be there just to fill the field seems to devalue the integrity of the competitive aspect of the race.

John, Seville, OH

MP: A little story: My first Indy 500 as a crew member was in 1997 with the tiny and unknown Thomas Knapp Motorsports/Genoa Racing team. It was, in every aspect, the 1996 Genoa Racing Indy Lights team in terms of crew and infrastructure, with Genoa team manager/engineer Tom Knapp pulling in some wealthy friends and contributors to acquire a Dallara chassis and two Oldsmobile engines and Angelo Ferro’s Genoa shop and assets, making the leap to the Indy Racing League, with the Indy 500 as our very first event. It was the controversial 25/8 Rule year where the top 25 IRL cars in the standings were guaranteed starting spots, which meant we were one of the outsiders vying for the eight remaining positions.

We showed a lot of promise, but Tom made a mistake on his fuel calculations for qualifying, we ran our 1994 Genoa Formula Atlantic driver Greg Ray dry as he started his fourth lap of qualifying, and then we had more dramas and ended up starting 30th. A pin on the water pump drive broke and we were overheating and out on lap 48. On the surface, we were a group of nobodies, came from the rival CART series where Atlantics and Indy Lights ran, and did nothing to impress anyone.

Then we returned for our second Indy 500 and on a shoestring budget, qualified second and led 18 laps until a broken gearbox ended our day. It’s not like we went from a bunch of nobodies as rookies to a group of somebodies as sophomores, but without a chance to be in the show — and we had to earn it — in 1997, we wouldn’t have had the chance to learn and improve ourselves so that we could come back and show our full potential.

We were little more than field-fillers the first time around and surprised the living heck out of everyone on our return. That’s why holding the line and not abandoning the field of 33 matters to me and others, I’d have to assume. There are some great stories — happy and sad — that are made each year, and even if we don’t have bumping, there will be some dramas among a few drivers and teams to make things interesting.

And finally, if IndyCar is trying to grow, trying to promote its value and improved season-long car counts and TV ratings, what kind of message does it send by accepting a reduced car count at its biggest and most popular race? If they throw in the towel on its tradition of 33 starters, they open themselves up to big questions from sponsors, promoters, and their main corporate partners about the true health of the series.

Two guys who know a thing or two about Bump Day drama – Ryan Hunter-Reay (bumped in 2011) consoles James Hinchcliffe (bumped in 2018). Michael L. Levitt/Motorsport Images

Q: I reference the uptick in F1 interest and ratings in the U.S. that has been documented over the past couple of years. Many attribute this to the Netflix series “Drive to Survive.” I have no doubt this has had an effect. However, I believe there is another major factor that no one has mentioned. That is the fact that the U.S. telecasts of F1 qualifying and races are shown commercial-free (at least while the event is occurring). It is a major priority of mine to watch IndyCar, F1, and NASCAR each weekend when they are available. Truth be told, the IndyCar telecasts on NBC and the NASCAR telecasts are hard to watch. Just when the action gets going, a commercial or 12 pops up. The side-by-side commercials are better than nothing, but are still very limited in what the viewer can see.

I know commercials are normally a necessary evil, but the extent of the commercials have reached a point where I believe they are significantly hurting viewership. Especially when half the commercials are repeats of earlier commercials or promos for the networks. Many of these are shown over a dozen times a broadcast. I realize that ESPN is in a special situation since it is able to pick up a program that is basically paid for in another country. Does ESPN make decent profit showing the F1 practices, qualifying and races?

Bill Mapel, Austin, TX

MP: Hi Bill, yes, plenty of folks also mention the no-commercials aspect of the ESPN broadcasts as a positive, but F1 was hugely popular on ESPN decades ago when Senna and Prost were battling each other and we had constant commercials, so I don’t think that’s an actual reason for F1 to significantly grow in popularity here. Another thing — it’s awesome that F1 has tons of new American fans, but it’s also somewhat funny to see how many of those new F1 lovers fail to realize it existed, and was dearly loved here before DTS landed on Netflix.

Commercials aren’t a necessary evil — it’s the core business model used by our networks to pay for the shows they offer. ESPN is said to have gotten F1 for next to nothing since F1 wanted to find a bigger cable partner, and in return, ESPN has only benefited from the sizable audiences who now look to their channels for racing content and more.

As Roger Penske mentioned in an article we ran last weekend on his views with F1’s growth in the U.S., F1 is known to be asking for a major bump in compensation for its series with the current contract coming to an end, so if an ESPN or similar pays that hefty tab, it would be hard to see how they’d keep it commercial-free.

Q: The letters that have been critical of IndyCar for its lack of foresight/promotion have a lot to support that notion and I was particularly dismayed at the TMS “event.” It was embarrassing. That said, F1 and IndyCar are entirely different products and cater to different demographics with very little overlap. It is not to denigrate any group, but consider this — If you want to go to the Miami F1 event, sit in decent seats for the three days, pay for hotels, meals and the like, it will set you back north of $7000-$8,000. The seats alone are close to $3,000/pair and good hotels are going to be in the $1,000/night and up bracket.

Compare those costs to the Road America IndyCar weekend with tickets at $150 each for the three days of hotels — far more economical. How anyone could complain about “high ticket prices” is beyond me. You can spend more in an afternoon at Six Flags.

I prefer IndyCar for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fan-friendly atmosphere, and in the case of Road America, the best road course in North America with the best brats!

IndyCar desperately needs new equipment/powertrains. I fear that team owners are only looking at the near-term and while they are rightly concerned about capital costs, the cars are dated, tired and are not contemporary with performance envelopes that are sub-par. The old Panoz-Cosworth was a far better package and it is ancient. People go to races not only to see close competition, but they want to be wowed by the equipment. It is a fantasy and people need that in the product.

As an aside, we were a support event for the Long Beach Grand Prix in 2017 as they had our CanAm cars there. I ran my 1972 McLaren M8F and the crowds on Friday were enormous just to see these cars. People were up against the fences as we accelerated down Shoreline. It was spectacular and of course the noise was deafening. This is what people want. Our 50-year-old cars drew more people on a Friday than I have ever seen. We gave them a “wow” moment.


MP: Well, Colton Herta did just shatter the Long Beach track record by a mile, but I get your point. This year at Long Beach, the vintage IMSA GTP and Group C cars run by HMSA might have been the most loved cars at the event, and even for those who’d never seen or heard them before Friday, I guarantee you that everyone went home with the searing sounds of the four-rotor Mazda prototypes permanently burned into their memories.

Some of the GTP cars were driven with great speed and some weren’t, but altogether, the evocative looks of the carious prototypes were unforgettable, and when you add in the diverse and amazing soundtracks they produced, this one support race with 10 cars entered served as the biggest reminder of how the eyes and ears need to be dazzled at motor racing events.

Whenever IndyCar gets around to creating a new car, I really do hope they include outsiders — educated fans — who can help them to think about the visceral and sonic impacts the cars need to make in order to grow its audience. I don’t know if anything can be done to improve the sounds with the new engines, but it’s worth exploring with Chevy and Honda.

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8